Posted by: towmasters | June 9, 2011

Open-Door Policy: It’s Not Always Good

Some managers have an “open-door” office policy when it comes to fielding comments, complaints or suggestions from the workers. This can be viewed as a sign of a healthy workplace environment: nobody has all the answers and problem-solving should be a collaborative process.

But an open-door policy on a tugboat, when taken literally, isn’t a good idea.

Working backwards through this series of photos, a closer look at this small tug with a short stern tow…

…reveals that all of the doors on the main deck are wide open. That’s broad-daylight-on-water showing through the engine room doors. If anything went wrong with the engines or steering with that barge so close astern they’d have little or no time to avoid being tripped, if it didn’t just run them over instead. Even without a failure on the tug itself something else could go wrong: maybe that sailboat all of a sudden turns in front of their bow. You never know what might happen so the best defense of all is to keep the doors closed and tightly dogged, particularly when towing close astern. Watertight doors also require maintenance (grease the dogs), proper alignment (use shims to adjust), a good seal (clean, pliable gaskets) and periodic testing (chalk around the knife edge) if they are to be fully effective. But regardless, a closed door with an imperfect seal is still way better than a door that seals perfectly but is left pinned open all the time.

These photos weren’t posted to embarrass anyone or to throw them under the bus, and I debated whether or not I should even use them at all. But ultimately the safety imperative is the most important consideration here, or at least it should be. I have lots more where these came from because the practice is far more common than it should be. The Coast Guard, for its part, repeatedly warns about the dangers of this practice via their Safety Alerts, but still it goes on. Some of it, no doubt, comes from mariners who just don’t care. But some of it comes from the fact that it can get so damned hot in the engine room when the weather starts to warm up that it’s simply intolerable to humans except for very short periods of time. Conditions like that are certainly not conducive to getting the crew to make diligent and thorough rounds of the machinery spaces, let alone perform regular maintenance on a vessel that runs most of the time and whose engine room seldom cools down. In this case the photos were taken on a nice spring day in New York Harbor, with an air temperature in the upper 60’s and the water still in the 50’s. So I doubt very much that the engine room would have been so hot that this was absolutely necessary. But then again, I don’t work on that boat so I don’t know for sure.

What I do know is this: tugs have very little reserve buoyancy and so cannot afford to take a chance on losing any of it. Down-flooding of the engine room, which is what can and does happen when doors are left open, is virtually guaranteed to sink you, and fast. But humans have physiological limits too, and if people are pushed too far out of their comfort zone they simply will cease to perform. Failing to account and adequately allow for human requirements is a long-term systemic problem in the marine industry and any tug that must have the main deck doors open in hot weather is, by definition, both unsafe and unseaworthy. Regardless of whether the leading cause industry-wide is shortcomings with tug design and engine room ventilation systems, the attitudes of mariners manning the boats or, most likely, a combination of both, the problem still persists. More work needs to be done in educating mariners about the dangers as well as ensuring that engine rooms aren’t as hot as the surface of Mercury, thereby guaranteeing that this practice will necessarily continue as a heat-stroke avoidance tactic. If a requirement for adequate ventilation, including clear performance standards, is not included in the first draft of the upcoming new towing vessel inspection regulations then it was a major oversight that will need to be corrected in the first round of comments and revisions.

For more on this subject check out Death On The River Clyde, More Thoughts On The River Clyde Tragedy…, Do You Live In A Barn?, and Getting Tripped: Roll The Video…


  1. Standing orders on my boat, while we are towing or doing an assist all the hatches are to be dogged w/ all 6 dogs, no “if’s,” “and’s”, or “buts”, and my boys are very good about it. I also make a point of checking them as soon as I get an opportunity. I realize that on most boats as well as mine it makes the fiddly and E/R temp get up there but it’s no excuse. I have had, and seen barges run on boat, and buried the rail pushing a ship, as we all have, but seeing the results of a couple of tugs that were salvaged because of flooding in this manner drives the point home.

  2. You’re standing orders to keep the doors closed are laudable, and should be imitated by all, but to ignore the ventilation problems that cause engine room temps to go way beyond tolerable is simply not an acceptable answer. My personal experience has been that that it can, and does, get more than just “up there.” It can get so hot that the machinery, as well as the crew, suffers for it. This is a solvable problem, if any one really wants to solve it: more vent area higher up (to make up for the area lost to the closed door or doors) and bigger blowers that can move more air.

  3. As I agree w/ the ventilation point we all know that the Naval architects rarely listen to the people who live and work the boat but only to the guy who signs the check, and they usually don’t care. When the opportunities come to retro fit my experience has been about the same. It’s worked for this long why change it, that coming from the leather chair in the office comfortably set to 65 deg. Given the choice rather be hot than wet.

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